Research Summary

The Unexpected Effects of Transparency

by Ethan S. Bernstein


Workplace transparency provides a foundation for learning, control, and therefore productivity. Yet, in a world obsessed with transparency, Professor Bernstein’s research shows that limitations exist--that transparency-enhancing tools can backfire due to the unintended consequences of too much transparency at work.

Why does workplace transparency work when it does? Why does it disappoint when it does?  

Professor Bernstein’s research, which uses multiple methods to address those two questions, is centered on the finding that not only does transparency reveal what employees do, it can also change what they do, with both intended and unintended consequences. A bright light helps you study an Old Master painting, but it also affects the paint and changes or fades the colors. Just as museums need to balance the need to see and the need to protect, organizations need to balance the need to observe with the observed party’s need to be private. 

Those organizations which fail to balance observer and observed perspectives on workplace transparency may do so at their peril, resulting in what Professor Bernstein has termed a transparency paradox or transparency trap: overly-transparent work environments, because they leave employees feeling exposed, may produce less-transparent employees who seek to actively conceal what they are doing—even when making improvements—thus reducing productivity and, paradoxically, transparency. 

Professor Bernstein continues to conduct research to, in his words, make transparency transparent.

Keywords: transparency; privacy; productivity; Field Experiments; United States; Europe; China; Japan;